Playdek's George Rothrock & Gary Weis on Agricola, venture funding, and more

By Owen Faraday 11 Apr 2013 0
This box is getting real familiar. Not so much as a screenshot of Agricola has been released yet.

When I last interviewed George Rothrock and Gary Weis (Director of Business Development and Chief Technology Officer at Playdek, respectively), they were knee-deep in new game announcements and buckling down to finish the highly-anticipated iOS edition of Uwe Rosenberg's instant classic board game Agricola. Fast forward eight months to today, and the makers of Ascension and Summoner Wars are in much the same place: getting ready to make some more game announcements, and finishing Agricola. As it turns out, at least some of the intervening time was spent making pitches: two weeks ago, Playdek announced that it had raised almost $4 million dollars in funds from investors.

When I spoke to Rothrock and Weis last September, they talked about their plans to "bring all of our players on all different devices into one cross-platform-capable pool", creating an online Playdek community that united Playdek games with a common social. That new platform was at the core of their pitch to investors and Playdek is shuffling their schedule to make it a priority.

After the jump, my chat with Rothrock and Weis from last week: more about the forthcoming Playdek platform, an update on Agricola, and the likelihood of Playdek going free-to-play.

Owen Faraday: I've got a feeling that you guys are finally going to push Agricola out the door. Am I right?

George: Agricola is in the last stages. We are head-down on it, we're going to do a teaser trailer here before too long.

Gary Weis: Screenshots don't do it justice.

OF: I imagine it's a game you have to see in motion to appreciate.

George: Well, the teaser trailer doesn't show gameplay yet either. [laughs] There will be a gameplay trailer for sure. Eventually.

OF: One of my readers brought this up the other week, actually: Playdek's announced so many projects at this point -- that Wizards of the Coast collaboration, most recently -- how on Earth are those guys going to deliver on all of them? Then the announcement of your funding came through. And I said, 'Oh that's how.'

George: Our next interview we'll call you from Costa Rica, Owen.

Gary: The funding is part of the answer, but now we have to find people to fill roles.

George: Talking about Wizards of the Coast, more details about the product and that timeline are coming later in the year. One take-away from [the funding news] is that we're here for the long haul. We've got longer initiatives planned out and we're in a comfortable place with our partners.


Heroes from the Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft tabletop game. Heroes from the Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft tabletop game.

OF: I've talked to a few other folks in the digital hobby gaming space that are pursuing or have received outside funding. You look at Goko last year, you guys now. Is there a sense in venture capital circles that digital hobby gaming is due for a boom?

George: We've found a lot people who are very interested in what's going on in mobile. Social gaming, free-to-play business models are being bandied about a lot. So that was interesting for us because a lot of [potential investors] would ask, 'why aren't you like company X or company Y' because we don't do free-to-play. But hobby gaming, tabletop gaming as an audience is becoming increasingly interesting to people. But I don't think there'll be tons and tons of investment in this space. There's just not enough players in it.

OF: Yet.

George: Yeah. And the model that Goko has and what we're trying to do and what some other companies are trying to do -- they're all very different.

OF: But this platform you want to build -- this proprietary platform that creates a community layer that links together Playdek games -- that's not entirely unlike what Goko and Stone Blade are trying to do in principle.

George: I can't speak to Stone Blade or Goko besides what I've read online -- but it's not rocket surgery that in the 21st century that community and engagement and online play is part of what people expect. For us, when we think about our community, we focus on the kinds of things that hobby gamers are really interested in. The kinds of things we would get through game night at your friend's house or at the local game store. It's about giving our customers features that they're interested in. It's not a big platform for its own sake with lots of social/Facebook whatever built into it.

OF: Tell me more about the Playdek platform. How has it evolved since you first mentioned it to me last fall?

George: We're going to roll it out with a launch game and integrate it into our existing games.

Gary: It's something that we had conceived way before we talked to you about it last year, Owen. It's something we'd talked about with all of our publishing partners, starting with Ascension. For the last year and a half while we've cranked out individual titles in part to raise our profile so we could raise money to build this platform. Now that we can do what we want to do then you're going to start seeing features we've been dreaming of doing for the last year and a half.

Wargame Commands and Colors (image by Janek S). Wargame Commands and Colors (image by Janek S).

George: The platform is going to give people a chance to develop a culture around the games we put out. We want to cultivate a sense of community around the games themselves, one that's seamlessly part of the game experience.

OF: I'm just trying to wrap my head around the form that the platform actually takes. Is it a standalone app, is it something you connect to over a web browser?

George: You'll be able to get to it through a browser as well as integrated through the games themselves. We're being vague right now because there's still a lot to do before we properly announce this thing.

OF: Let's talk about the balls you guys threw into the air last year: where's Tank on Tank? Commands and Colors?

George: Tank on Tank has been pushed back until next year. But you're going to see an announcement from us and Lock n' Load before too long about what we've decided to prioritize ahead of it. We think everyone's going to be really pleased with that. Commands and Colors we're still working with Gene Billingsley -- you will see Command and Colors but we have pushed it back a little bit as we start work on these big plans that all of our games are going to benefit from.

OF: Is Tanto Cuore on the slate for this year?

George: Yes it is -- we'll be showing a demo of it at Games Market in Tokyo at the end of the month. It'll be landing later in the year. We're also going to be talking about Summoner Wars before too long. We've new factions and updates and a new feature coming this summer. We're really excited about it.

OF: What about Ascension? It's living on borrowed time now, so is that going to get more support beyond Immortal Heroes?

George: Besides Immortal Heroes we're doing promo packs and a new digital exclusive for Ascension that Stoneblade's agreed to do for us.

OF: All of that besides Immortal Heroes? For an app with a year and a half to live?

George: We love Ascension. We're happy to continue to support it as long as we can. Stoneblade's decided to take it back in house and at the end of 2014 that's what's going to happen. We wish them the best with that.

OF: Is core gaming finally coming into its own on mobile devices? Obviously we're all biased here, but did you see that post on our site about Battle Academy for iPad outselling its PC counterpart by 5 to 1? Is your new funding another reason to question the conventional wisdom that core games don't do well on mobile?

George: Definitely. Battle Academy is a unique niche, though. And it's basically the only product in that niche. I would need to see, like, five products be successful in the niche before I said 'yes, there's a proven market for this sort of game'.

OF: Battle Academy benefited from being the only game in town for a long time, you're saying.

A card from Playdek's Ascension for iOS. A card from Playdek's Ascension for iOS.

George: It did -- that's not to take anything away from it, but it did benefit from being the only game like it available [on iOS] for so long. And that's part of why it's a value at $20. I mean that in a really good way.

The race to the bottom in the App Store is not good for anyone. It's about what I call "appropriate value". If you put effort in, put quality into what you make, people will see the value in it. People see the value in good work. When you look at the amount of time spent in our apps -- we collect that anonymously -- they're an amazing value. People play our games for a long time. But to your point, yes: Battle Academy's success if validation. We shouldn't be giving things away. Free-to-play works in some markets, but that's not us. That's not our market. That's not our customers.

OF: I've yet to see anybody make a free to play game that felt game design-led as opposed to monetization model-led.

George: Well, there's design in the business side of it too, I guess. [laughs] That's not to say that millions of people aren't really enjoying Clash of Clans. That's just not what we're interested in doing.

OF: Let's talk about Agricola. Tell me about the last couple of months. What are the last stages of polishing a game to your expectations for UI and balance and all that.

Gary: Well, Uwe Rosenberg did a quality job of balancing Agricola so we didn't need to touch that. [laughs] But it has been about the user experience. We didn't take the approach that we were just going to photocopy the board and throw on your iPad. We tried to veer away from that a little bit -- maintain the spirit of the [board] game, so that somebody who's familiar with it might have a little bit of a learning curve getting up to speed with our interface. Half an hour and then you're playing Agricola. But we've also tried to make it more approachable for somebody who's coming from a Farmville background. It's something where they can sit and interact with the farm and not worry so much about there being a final score coming at the end.

OF: So then this is less of a direct translation than say, Ascension was.

Gary: Yes. To use a term I learned from your website, we've tried to eliminate the skeuomorphisms. [laughs]

As we've grown as a company we've brought in more people who aren't necessarily board gamers. So that gives us more constant feedback [from non-board gamers]. We went to GDC last week and we were shoving iPads in front of people on the airplane. I've got half an hour of somebody's attention where they have nothing better to do than play my tutorial.

George: Yeah, we won't show Agricola to you, Owen, but we'll show it to total strangers we met on a plane. [laughs]

Gary: It's such important feedback for us.

George: Ascension had one tutorial -- Agricola's going to have seven. All broken up into shorter, bite-sized pieces. When you think about what people are spending their time on, and the polish -- that's mostly the tutorial and the interface, trying to make it so anybody can pick the game up and say, 'I get it.'
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